The Spy Who Came In and Got Old

AS GREAT as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War were to the cause of peace, they were hell on people who made their living telling spy stories. Tom Clancy had to start writing about the drug war, 007 began chasing nefarious media barons, and Reagan-fearing pop singers were forced to record lute music, for Christ’s sake.

OurKindofTraitorCoverFormer spook turned spy novelist extraordinaire John le Carré was among the hardest hit. The foremost writer of Cold War fiction found his creative center blown up by a few sledgehammers and a progressive Communist. His stuff hasn’t been the same since.

I recently listened to the audio version of le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor. The writing was as terrific as always; le Carré long has transcended the genre into which publishers stuffed him. But the storyline, centered around a few maverick British intelligence officers trying to take down … a money launderer, was fatally insignificant.

It’s not that such a story can’t be relevant or gripping; it’s that le Carré tells it the same way he rendered the far more critical work done by those grappling with the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union in the postwar period. And the situations simply don’t carry the same weight.

Reviewing Our Kind of Traitor in the New York Times, writer Chelsea Cain asserted that

[t]he appeal of the book is not in its modernity, but in its stubborn embrace of the past.

Spies wear berets and fedoras. A vacationing teenager wears “a Hakka-style lampshade hat and a cheongsam dress with toggle buttons and Grecian sandals cross-tied round her ankles.”

This is le Carré’s universe, not ours.

All the better.

Le Carré made a name for himself by injecting a sense of moral ambiguity into spy fiction. But these days, post Watergate, post weapons of mass destruction, post Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, institutional corruption and moral ambiguity are a given. Governments do bad stuff?

Well, yeahhhh. No duh.

It’s sort of thrilling to inhabit a world, even briefly, where characters are surprised when people and institutions fail to live up to their expectations.

Mmm, I wouldn’t use the word “thrilling.” I’d go with “anachronistic.” Or maybe “naive.” | DL

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